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President Obama to Talk to NASA's Mars Curiosity Team Today at 11:00 am ET

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Aug-2012 (Updated: 13-Aug-2012 09:59 AM)
President Obama will talk with the Mars Curiosity rover's team today at 11:00 am ET.  The event will be aired on NASA TV.

Wolf, Culberson Want NASA Administrator to Get 10-Year Appointment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Aug-2012 (Updated: 13-Aug-2012 09:54 AM)

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) are drafting legislation to make NASA into an agency that operates like the FBI with an administrator appointed to a 10-year term according to the Houston Chronicle.

Wolf is chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA. Culberson is a member of the subcommittee.

Wolf wrote a letter, which he made public, to the National Research Council's Committee on NASA's Strategic Direction in June urging the committee to look at whether the NASA administrator should be appointed for 10 years:  "I also urge you to consider whether the NASA administrator should serve a set 10-year term, similar to the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to ensure greater independence from the White House and improve cohesiveness over multiple administrations?"

The committee was created based on language Wolf inserted in the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA.   Its report is expected by the end of the year.

That apparently is too late for Wolf who is moving ahead with drafting legislation that would also "make the budget cycle multiyear rather than annual," according to the Houston Chronicle.

Research and development agencies like NASA often have wished for multi-year budgets to enable them to better plan their programs, but until now Congress has been unwilling to commit future Congresses to appropriations levels. Appropriators like Wolf and Culberson, in fact, tend to be very protective of their power to set appropriations levels annually.   It is not clear from the Chronicle's account whether they are suggesting that they and future appropriators relinquish their power to set appropriations levels for NASA years in advance, or whether they simply want a multi-year spending plan, but without a commitment from Congress to provide that spending level.  

Today, NASA provides a 5-year budget "run out" to show how much money it expects to request in the future, but it is not a commitment on the part of the Administration to request that funding level, much less a commitment by Congress to provide it.   Congress also passes multi-year authorization bills that recommend future funding levels, but those also are not a commitment to appropriate that level of funding.   NASA's current authorization bill covers three years:  FY2011, FY2012 and FY2013.  Authorization bills only recommend funding, however.  Only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies, one year at a time in almost all cases.

Details on what Wolf and Culberson exactly have in mind will have to await introduction of the legislation, but the Chronicle says the intent is to make NASA less politicized.   Whether appointing a NASA administrator for 10 years would accomplish that goal is an open question.   The policy changes that have complicated NASA's efforts over the past several years were caused by the White House and Congress, not the NASA Administrator, who must dutifully execute the laws that Congress passes and the policies issued by the President.

Editor's note:  In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the NRC committee mentioned in this article.  Nothing in this article is based on any privileged discussions within the committee.  As noted, the letter from Wolf to the committee was made public by the Congressman and is posted on his website.  The NRC committee is inviting comments from the public about the elements of its task statement.   To comment, visit the committee's website and fill out the "Public Input Form."  Comments are due by August 17.

Curiosity Satisfied -- Why the Mohawk for JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Aug-2012 (Updated: 13-Aug-2012 03:08 PM)

Apart from the landing itself, the most publicized aspect of the Mars Curiosity mission so far is the Mohawk haircut of one of JPL's landing team,  Bobak Ferdowsi.    Flight director for Curiosity's landing, Ferdowsi became an instant celebrity dubbed "Mohawk man."  He and Adam Steltzner, entry-descent-and landing (EDL) phase lead, were guests on yesterday's NPR program Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me.  Not only is it a fun program to listen to, but the interview with the duo satisfied everyone's curiosity about -- why the Mohawk?  

Steltzer also told the story of his unusual path to JPL, which should be music to the ears of many young people who don't know in high school what they want to be when they grow up.

The segment is worth listening to, but for those who don't have time, NPR provides a transcript at that link as well.  

And for those who don't even have time to click on that link, we'll tell you.

Ferdowsi (below, on the left) apparently got a different haircut for each phase of the mission, from launch to landing.   "The team" voted on what style he should have this time, and they chose the Mohawk.


Photo credit:  NPR, crediting "Left: Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images/Right Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images"

As for Steltzer (on the right), he was a high school dropout who played in a rock band in the San Francisco Bay area for a few years.  Driving home in the wee hours, he wondered why there was a different set of stars when he drove home compared to when he drove there "and I had some vague recollection about something moving with respect to something else" so went to a local community college to find out more.  One thing led to another and eventually to JPL.   Unfortunately, he also said he is now out of a job and joked "Will land on Mars for food."


Romney Veep Choice Paul Ryan Voted Against Last Two NASA Authorization Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Aug-2012 (Updated: 11-Aug-2012 11:21 PM)

Presumptive Republican presidental candidate Mitt Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his Vice Presidential running mate today.   Although voting records tell an incomplete tale, Ryan did vote against both the 2008 and 2010 NASA Authorization Acts.

Ryan became a Member of the House in 1999 at the age of 28.   Five major pieces of legislation specifically affecting civil and commercial space policy have passed since then.  Four were NASA authorization acts (2000, 2005, 2008 and 2010) and one was the Commercial Space Launch Act amendments in 2004 that set up the current regulatory framework for commercial human spaceflight.

Ryan voted aye on the 2000 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 106-391) when it passed the House in his first months in office in 1999 during a period when the House was under Republican control.  The bill passed 259-168.

There was no recorded vote on the 2005 NASA authorization bill (P. L. 109-155).  This bill generally endorsed President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration at a time when the House and Senate were under Republican control.

The 2008 NASA authorization bill (P.L. 110-422) was similar to the 2005 bill, but passed when the House and Senate were under Democratic control.   It passed 409-15 and Ryan was one of the 15 who voted against it.

The 2010 NASA authorization bill (P.L. 111-267) also passed under Democratic control, but by a smaller margin, 304-118.   The bill was quite controversial in the House and opposition to its passage was led by the Democratic chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), wife of then-NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.  She and Ryan were among the 118 House members who voted nay.

As for the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments (P.L. 105-492), which passed under Republican control, Ryan voted aye.  The bill passed 264-120.

Overall, this voting record may say more about his preference to vote with the Republican leadership than about his opinions on the space program, although the 2008 vote, where he was one of only 15 nay votes, might suggest a policy clash.  He apparently did not speak on the bill during floor debate based on a quick examination of the Congressional Record.

Today, Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee and determined to reduce the deficit.  The House adopted his budget plan earlier this year.  As reported by in March. his budget would cut more from the budget functions that include NASA and NOAA than President Obama's FY2013 budget request, but that does not necessarily mean it would cut more from NASA or NOAA.  The budget functions group together a number of agencies or parts of agencies, so it is not possible to determine from that budget what amounts would be provided to any of them specifically.   That would be determined later through appropriations committee action.

Curiosity Landed Within One Mile of Target

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2012 (Updated: 10-Aug-2012 05:01 PM)

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover came awfully close to hitting the bull's eye when it landed earlier this week.   After travelling 352 million miles, the spacecraft landed approximately one mile away from its targeted impact point.   As NASA officials said in pre-landing briefings, it was like launching from Cape Canaveral and landing in a particular seat in the Rose Bowl. 

This illustration shows the major stages of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL).  Below it are the times at which selected events actually occurred based on preliminary analysis of a modest amount of data that was returned shortly after touchdown.   Members of the EDL team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson Space Center and Langley Research Center met with the press today and said they would have a more detailed analysis once more the data are returned to Earth.

Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

The times for selected events are as follows:

Time of Event Occurrence at Mars (PDT)
[10:10:45.7 PM] Atmospheric Entry
[10:15:04.9 PM] Parachute Deploy
[10:15:24.6 PM] Heat Shield Separation
[10:17:38.6 PM] Rover Separation (from Descent Stage)
[10:17:57.3 PM] Touchdown

Time Event Occurrence Received on Earth (PDT)
[10:24:33.8 PM] Atmospheric Entry
[10:28:53.0 PM] Parachute Deploy
[10:29:12.7 PM] Heat Shield Separation
[10:31:26.7 PM] Rover Separation (from Descent Stage)
[10:31:45.4 PM] Touchdown

Also based on preliminary analysis, the team concluded that the Sky Crane descent module landed about 600 meters (about 2,000 feet) from the rover.   They believe that Curiosity's cameras recorded not the impact itself, but the cloud created by the impact, which then dissipated, as shown in these images.


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA Science -- It's Not Just About Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2012 (Updated: 09-Aug-2012 09:16 PM)

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has captivated our attention for the past several days, and undoubtedly for weeks, months and years to come.  But NASA's science program is more than "just" planetary exploration, as agency press releases have emphasized over the past couple of days.

NASA's Science Mission Directorate has four main divisions -- planetary science, earth science, heliophysics (also known as solar-terrestrial physics), and astrophysics.  In addition, there is a lot of science happening aboard the International Space Station, which is part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

To make sure Curiosity's breathtaking landing and mesmerizing images don't upstage all the other science that NASA does, here is a brief rundown of other recent NASA science news:

  • Earth Science.   Studying other bodies in the solar system is fascinating, but Earth is the Number One planet!  NASA has many satellites studying our home. Today NASA released an image from one of its Earth science satellites, Aqua, showing an unusual storm over the Arctic.  NASA said that in the past 34 years, in August, there have only been eight storms of similar strength. The conditions for such storms usually occur in the winter, not the summer.  That's Greenland in the lower left, with its white icesheet. 

Image credit:  NASA/Goddard/MODIS Rapid Response Team

  • Heliophysics.   NASA held a press conference today about the upcoming launch of its Radiation Belts Storm Probes (RBSP). The two probes will investigate how Earth's Van Allen radiation belts interact with events on the Sun in creating "space weather."  Space weather is caused by particles from the Sun released during solar flares interacting with the Earth's magnetosphere, with resulting satellite failures, electrical outages on Earth, and disruption to telecommunications signals, including those from television and GPS satellites.
  • Astrophysics.   NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is probably the most popular earth-orbiting satellite ever placed into space, but it is only one of four "great onservatories" launched by NASA.   Two of the others continue to function today, Chandra and Spitzer.  On August 17 NASA will have a news conference about a "record-breaking galaxy cluster" discovered by Chandra researchers.  Each of the great observatories was designed to study the universe in different wavelengths:  Hubble, visible;  Spitzer, infrared; Chandra. x-ray; and Compton (deorbited after its mission ended), gamma rays. 
  • International Space Station (ISS).   The ISS was created as a scientific laboratory in orbit where research could be conducted in a microgravity environment.  The six ISS crew members -- currently three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese -- conduct an array of scientific experiments.  Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft recently docked with the ISS, delivering some new, interesting experiments, including one to "examine the predatory behavior of jumping spiders."  Yes, there are spiders aboard the ISS.  The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on July 25 that discussed many other experiments with more direct relevance to humans, including research into vaccines for salmonella and MRSA.   A compendium of science experiments on ISS is available on NASA's website.

As for the solar system, Mars is hardly NASA's only interest.  NASA probes have visited all of the eight planets and one is currently enroute to Pluto, which used to be a planet.  These probes also have studied many of the moons of the outer planets and other spacecraft are investigating asteroids and comets.  Excluding the ISS research, NASA's budget for space and earth science is about $5 billion a year.

And Now ... in Color: Curiosity's Landing Site on Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2012 (Updated: 09-Aug-2012 07:18 PM)

NASA continues to add astonishing images to its library of photos taken by cameras aboard the Mars Curiosity rover.  Yesterday it released a black and white panorama of Gale Crater where the rover landed.  Today, the panorama is in color.

One part of the image shows Mt. Sharp, Curiosity's destination once it is checked out and starts roving.   Curiosity's science team asked for patience as they get the rover ready to explore its surroundings, suggesting it may be some time before Curiosity reaches that mountain, shown in the image below.

Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mike Malin, principal investigator of Mastcam from Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), said that as good as this image is, "this is only one-eighth the potential resolution of images from this camera."

The full size 360 degree panorama is available on NASA's website (it loses a lot of its value if resized to fit on this page) was stitched together by scientists here on Earth from 130 thumbnail versions taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Curiosity.  Selected full frames from the panorama are expected to be transmitted to Earth later.  The gray splotches are where the rocket engines on Curiosity's Sky Crane blasted away the surface material.  NASA said the images were "brightened" because they were taken in the Martian afternoon and Mars receives only half the sunlight of Earth.

Mars Curiosity Shows Panorama of Landing Site

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2012 (Updated: 09-Aug-2012 09:30 AM)

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover send back images that Earth-based researchers turned into a panorama of the rover's landing site at Gale Crater.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The image shows the Curiosity lander in the foreground and the rim of Gale Crater beyond the pebbly background.  The images were taken from Navigation cameras on Curiosity's mast, which was deployed yesterday.   NASA also said the thrust from the descent engines on the Sky Crane dug a one-and-a-half foot long trench that exposed Martian bedrock, a bonus for scientists.


Russian Prime Minister to Convene Meeting on "Crisis" in Space Industry Next Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Aug-2012 (Updated: 08-Aug-2012 02:01 PM)

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will convene a meeting next week to discuss the "crisis" in the Russian space industry following Monday's Proton rocket failure according to Russia's Itar-Tass news service. 

Itar-Tass calls the current situation a "deep crisis," estimating that the failure of the Proton's Briz upper stage represents a loss of 6-8 billion rubles.  The Proton-Briz vehicle was intended to place two satellites into geostationary orbit: Indonesia's Telkom-3 and Russia's Ekspress-MD2.  The latter was built by Russia's Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which also builds the Proton rocket and Briz upper stage.  "However, Russia is losing not only money, but also the reputation of the country," Itar-Tass lamented.

Russia was the leading global commercial launch provider last year, with 56 percent of the market according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Europe was second with 22 percent.  The United States had no commercial launches in 2011.

Russia's RIA Novosti reports that the satellites were insured by Russian Ingosstrakh and Alfa Strakhovanie:  1.17 billion rubles for Ekspress-MD2 and 225 million rubles for Telkom 3.  (1 ruble = 0.03 $US)

Russian Proton rocket with Briz upper stage.
Photo credit: Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center via RIA Novosti.

Russia's typically reliable launch vehicle fleet has experienced an unusual number of failures since December 2010 when another Proton launch failure doomed three Russian GLONASS navigation satellites.  Five more failures of various rockets followed in 2011 -- including the Proton launch of another Ekspress satellite almost exactly a year ago -- sparking personnel changes at Russia's Roscosmos space agency and elsewhere in the space industry.  Roscosmos Director Anatoly Perminov was one of those fired.  His replacement, Vladimir Popovkin, was assigned to fix what was wrong, but spent most of the year dealing with more and more failures including the very high profile Phobos-Grunt loss in November.   A December 2011 failure was the last straw for the top levels of the Russian government and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was appointed to investigate the industry and come up with solutions.

Popovkin has held on to his job so far, but it appears that changes he instituted to avoid launch failures have not worked.  Itar-Tass cites Rogozin as saying that Medvedev will convene a special meeting next week "at which the current tense situation in the Russian space industry will be discussed in detail."  Rumors are that the jobs of Khrunichev's leadership may not be safe either.  Russian analysts quoted by Itar-Tass point out, however, that it simply is not possible to rectify longstanding problems in the space industry in just a few months.

Proton launches have been suspended while the root causes of the failure are determined.  Historically, such stand-downs are not long lasting. cites Roscosmos as reporting that the upper stage engine operated for only seven seconds instead of 18 minutes 4 seconds as planned.


First Color Image from Curiosity and Photo of Curiosity on the Surface

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Aug-2012 (Updated: 08-Aug-2012 09:21 AM)

The Martian police would probably charge us with littering, but NASA released a photo today showing the Curiosity rover, its heat shield, parachute, back shell and Sky Crane on the Martian surface.   That image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA spacecraft that has been in orbit around Mars since 2006.   Then NASA released the first color image taken by Curiosity itself from its new home in Gale Crater, Mars.

Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Curiosity arrived on the surface thanks to the other components shown in this image.   The heat shield protected it from the 3,800 degree Fahrenheit heat of descent through the Martian atmosphere.  A photo released earlier by NASA, taken by a camera on Curiosity during descent, shows the heat shield after it was jettisoned.   Jettisoning the heat shield allowed deployment of the supersonic parachute that slowed Curiosity to about 200 miles per hour.  It and the backshell to which it was attached then were jettisoned and the Sky Crane took over to make a powered descent the rest of the way down.  When Curiosity's wheels touched the surface, it fired pyros to disconnect the the cables connecting it to the Sky Crane and the Sky Crane flew off so it would not land on top of the rover. 

Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Main Space Science Systems

Meanwhile, Curiosity sent back this color image of its surroundings.   The view is to the north and shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater in the distance.  NASA says the image is murky because the cover of the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) that took the picture is coated with dust from the landing.  Images without the dust cover are expected in due course once the rover's robotic arm is released from its stowed position and can remove the cap.

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